Film Debut: Christopher Nolan (Following, 1998)

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Christopher Nolan’s 1998 debut film was made on a considerably low budget; $6000 to be exact. Conceived to be as inexpensive as possible to produce, Following is without the scope or scale of Nolan’s later films. At a mere 70 minutes (to save on the costs of film stock) it’s also the briefest of his films, with an uncharacteristically simple story at its center.

A young writer (Jeremy Theobald) prone to voyeuristic tendencies and whose true name we never learn, becomes obsessed with following strangers. Eventually one of his subjects named Cobb (No, not the Leonardo DiCaprio one) notices the young man’s voyeurism and confronts him about it. It transpires that Cobb is a burglar, one who is unusually not interested in the material value to be gained from his crimes, but instead in invading the privacy of others and becoming intimately familiar with their lives through examining their possessions. Cobb invites the writer to tag along on his future burglaries and they begin to form a twisted bond over their shared preoccupation. However when the writer (who calls himself “Bill”) begins to engage in a relationship with a woman whose house the two broke into, things begin to become a bit more complicated.

Thematically Following sits comfortably among the rest of Nolan’s films. Crime, deception, identity, all are themes continually addressed by the director and all are examined thoroughly here. The key concern though is probably obsession, linking the film most closely in terms of themes to his 2006 period drama/sci-fi The Prestige. A neo-noir in the truest sense, the film follows the tropes of the genre quite closely and the narrative beats (for the most part) are fairly predictable. Or at least they would be under normal circumstances. To shake up the fairly straightforward narrative, Nolan employs a technique in Following that he will use more ingeniously in his sophomore effort Memento: he rearranges the chronology of the story. Whilst it might not be quite as successfully utilized as in Nolan’s later film, it is hard to deny the intrigue experienced in trying to piece together Following’s fractured narrative on first viewing. It’s similarly satisfying when certain random inter-cut images that seem rather abstract at first, are later contextualized by the events that led up to them.

The film is also, as that 70 minute run time suggests, very tightly constructed. Every moment is integral and there is no padding to be found here, most likely because Nolan couldn’t afford to indulge in narrative transgressions when working with such restricted resources. As a result, every seemingly incidental detail takes on a vital significance in the film’s surprising conclusion. This kind of discipline is impressive, and it is something many other modern directors could really learn from.

However the strict focus on plot alone does leave the characters relatively underdeveloped. This issues is not restricted to Following alone; Nolan’s almost exclusive focus on plot and on themes means that often his characters get little chance to be perceived as real people. Some (a number on Inception’s minor players for instance), struggle to even make an impression as anything other than exposition robots or devices in place purely to serve the plot. You might think that in a smaller, less epic story like Following, Nolan might have been able to humanise his characters a little more, but he doesn’t really. In fact, apart from his obsessive nature we learn very little about our protagonist, or anyone else for that matter. Only Cobb feels like a person with anything resembling a human personality, with his Tyler Durden-esque rebellious charisma. On that same subject, the inexperienced cast offer mixed results. Whilst they are able to occasionally bring an authentic naturalism to their performances, they aren’t particularly engaging. Not only that but frequently dialogue exchanges feel a little clunky and unintentionally awkward, not because of the writing (which is rather good) but because those on screen may not be up to the task.  Nolan isn’t working with any Heath Ledgers or Guy Pierces here; this would be less problematic were it not for the fact that we have to spend the entirety of the film’s running time in “Bill’s” company. That kind of restricted narration requires a magnetic performance at it’s core and unfortunately Theobald just isn’t that presence. 

Despite these niggles however, Following is actually a very strong debut. Sure the acting isn’t up to the quality that it is in some of Nolan’s later work and it feels a lot less substantial and weighty too. But the storytelling is nuanced, the pacing fast and the writing of a high quality. It’s very easy to see how the promise shown here would develop across the director’s filmography, but that almost sounds like damming with faint praise. Following is more than just an effective calling card, it’s a solid, fantastically constructed film in it’s own right that shows off it’s directors talent. It is good to see nothing has changed.

Following (1998), directed by Christopher Nolan, is released on DVD in the UK by Momentum Pictures, Certificate 15.

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I have the enviable skill of making TV watching, Video-game playing and ranting about films appear to be a legitimate form of work. It's exhausting. Oh and I am the Culture Editor now... that too!

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